Looking at some persistent problems raised at the NLGN Conference
I still keep tabs on what happens in local government policy circles – one that I found myself slap bang in the middle of some 10 years ago in my first civil service fast stream posting following my move from Cambridge to London. Not surprisingly, the tensions between central and local government remain – as they have done for centuries.
Central government decisions with local implications – that’s the entire planning system, certainly as far as Cambridge is concerned. This is because councillors are having to self-censor themselves and wave through planning applications that they would rather send back to developers, especially where the design is poor, lazy or bland.
Bad design builds in problems for the future, and community groups simply do not have the financial firepower to match the wealth of developers as they game the planning system.
The problem is that until local councils – and in particular city/municipal councils have the financial powers to raise revenue (through taxation – for example on land values, lack of use of land, or otherwise), the dependence on local councils on Whitehall will remain. Treasury is extremely reluctant to relinquish such tax and spend powers.
The structure of local councils and local government does come up with some strange statistics – especially on the number of directors.
One for each metropolitan borough. Quite understandably, there are those asking if there is a better way. We’re seeing more examples of local councils sharing chief executives, chief planning officers and so on in order to both cut costs and co-ordinate services. For Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire, it makes sense to share very senior staff dealing with housing and transport issues because they cross council boundaries.
Business rates have been in the news lately because of splits between Conservative ministers and grassroots members over the impact business rates have on small businesses.
The curse of short-term thinking
Dr Howe, who is one of the wisest people in the field of digital public services, is essential following for those of you on Twitter. The problems local councils face has been made much worse by the Brexit vote in the short-to-medium term because of the policy resources now taken up by the Brexit negotiations. Furthermore, ministerial mindsets (irrespective of party) are ones where ministers know they have a very short career-span (with v few exceptions), so have an incentive to rush things that otherwise need more time. No one remembers the minister that put in place a sound framework and stable long term strategy.
…yet if we need to move away from the pre-2010 model for local government, who will be the minister that ‘puts in place a sound framework and stable long term strategy?’
For those not aware, the pre-2010 world had a lot of grant administration to be done by local councils – especially those in economically deprived areas. This is because the Blair/Brown governments ran a number of schemes that gave money to those areas to deal with difficult problems such as multiple deprivation. On a personal note, with hindsight I can’t help but think that a fair chunk of that money should have been spent on improving public transport infrastructure – especially light and heavy rail.
Given the world we live in…
…which then makes things complicated if politicians put turbo boosters behind fake-news tactics in order to win elections.
The world in 2030?
But how many local councils have a look back at history to find out how they got to today, and assess the schemes they approved and rejected?
The above looks at some of the schemes that were proposed and rejected in Cambridge during the 20th Century. Some things proposed in the early 1930s (city-wide segregated cycling network, a pedestrian footbridge over the railway line at the station to open up an eastern entrance and thus reducing traffic on Station Road) we’re still waiting for.
2030 is when the Greater Cambridge City Deal is due to finish. For those of you not aware of the local controversies with this, the current city deal is very ‘bus-based’ as far as public transport is concerned. While residents and campaign groups are looking at things such as Cambridge Light Rail (which I back), local council officers in particular have been far less optimistic on anything other than buses.
‘A better way of working’ – where have I heard that before?
The problem with previous attempts to bring in better ways of working – ones that have failed, is that people become cynical. Why bother this time around when the last one didn’t deliver?
Who remembers all the attempts to reduce our use of email?
The unequal distribution of funding was also raised.
The problem with the above is that the shires – the county councils – are predominantly Conservative-voting. This means that unlike their urban sister councils, they are less likely to vote for increases in council tax. This remains an issue in Cambridge where a combination of Conservative and UKIP councillors voted for freezing council tax rates even though neither parties hold seats in Cambridge City. Thus, for one of the parts of the country that ministers fall over themselves to praise, we have a local government structure that gives us nothing but paralysis. I don’t expect great things from the executive mayor stitch up either. As far as Cambridge is concerned and as I have said on many occasions, this was an attempt by ministers to get control of Cambridge without having to win elections in the city.
Don’t expect any change this side of a general election
With Treasury ministers tied up with Brexit (because let’s face it, they are the only ones that count) and with Conservative party policy being no new restructuring of local government (the last one being in the 1970s), I can’t see much of significance happening unless/until there is either a major change in government policy or there is a change of government following the next general election (which has local government restructure in its manifesto/programme for government).